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The Week In Russia: Sanctions, Syria, And Solitude

Following U.S. sanctions on Russian tycoons, the ruble slid and sanctions-hit companies sustained substantial damage.
Following U.S. sanctions on Russian tycoons, the ruble slid and sanctions-hit companies sustained substantial damage.

Russia's standing on the world stage looked pretty precarious the first week in April, with Moscow facing Western wrath over a nerve-agent poisoning in England as well as the threat of new U.S. sanctions. Since then, even more pressure has been piled on.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the last week, and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Gas Killing Animal'

Russia has faced Western ire for years now, since its seizure of Crimea in 2014, and the anger only increased when former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Soviet-developed nerve agent in England in March, triggering a full-scale diplomatic blow-up.

The confrontation has climbed to a new level in the past week, with the United States imposing new sanctions targeting tycoons close to President Vladimir Putin in response to Moscow's "malign activity around the globe," and U.S. President Donald Trump warning Russia to "get ready" for missile strikes on Syria over a suspected poison-gas attack that killed dozens of civilians in the town of Douma outside Damascus.

It was not the first time Russia has been hit with sanctions or criticized for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But there was something new in the air as Russia used its UN Security Council veto to protect Assad for the 12th time and Trump -- who has had little but praise for Putin or deference toward him since 2016 -- singled him out in an April 8 tweet as sharing responsibility "for backing Animal Assad."

In the warning of potential missile strikes three days later, Trump tweeted: "You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"

100 Years Of Solitude

If Russia is facing a new level of isolation, longtime Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov set the tone with an April 9 article warning that 2014 marked the start of a "new epoch" in which "100 years (200? 300?) of geopolitical solitude awaits us."

Surkov was the architect of the "managed democracy" under which Putin tightened control over Russian politics and society in 2000-08. His article played on the title of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel that was a staple of Russian bookstores in the 1990s -- a time when the radical changes in Russian lives and landscapes may have made magical realism seem mundane.

Vladislav Surkov sees a long period of isolation ahead.
Vladislav Surkov sees a long period of isolation ahead.

Now, Surkov suggested, Russians face an even bigger and longer-lasting challenge. Stating that 2014 marked an end of four centuries of "fruitless attempts to become a part of Western civilization," he wrote that it is now "up to us" whether Russia's long isolation will be that of an "alpha-nation" or a "loner vegetating in a backwater" -- a call for steely self-reliance that echoes exhortations by Putin over his many years in power.

'Malign Activity'

Surkov ended his article by saying that while Russia faces gargantuan struggles, it will someday reach the stars. But Putin -- who has vowed to improve Russians lives in the next six years, which could be his last as president -- needs results that come quicker and are more down to earth. He is said to be pragmatic, but when reaching for tools to keep Russia's economy growing and its clout on the world stage intact, Putin may be wishing for a little less realism and little more magic.

In addition to the new U.S. sanctions, the past week brought several signs of growing isolation that may have set off warning bells in the Kremlin, two of them from countries Putin has turned to for solidarity and support in the past: Germany and China.

For years, Russia and China have walked in virtual lockstep in the UN Security Council, countering the United States, Britain, and France by supporting one another in key votes. But when Russia used its veto power in the council to block a U.S.-drafted resolution that would have established an independent investigative body to probe alleged chemical attacks in Syria -- and lay blame for them -- China abstained.

The abstention, which repeated a move China made a year earlier following a chemical attack in Syria, underscores the limits of China's support for Russia as Beijing seeks in increase its own influence around the world and weighs the geopolitical worth of Moscow and Washington.

Russia and China no longer in lock-step?
Russia and China no longer in lock-step?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel cast new doubt over plans for the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, saying on April 10 that the project is "impossible without clarity on the future transit role of Ukraine" and that the issue involves politics as well as economics.

Translation: Russia's aggressive actions from Syria to Ukraine to England, where Western countries including Germany believe Putin's government was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia -- could jeopardize its economic plans and reduce revenues from its most lucrative exports.

Thanks But No Thanks

Speaking of Yulia Skripal, she also sent Russia a rejection letter of sorts -- at least according to a statement released by Britain's Metropolitan Police on her behalf In it, she made clear that she has no desire to meet with diplomats from the country Britain accuses of trying to kill her and her father with a nerve agent that can cause death by, in the words of one scientist, making the victim's body forget how to breathe.

Yulia Skripal: "No thanks" to Russian Embassy.
Yulia Skripal: "No thanks" to Russian Embassy.

Russia denies it was behind the poisoning and has seemed careful to show an interest in the health and fate of Yulia Skripal, a Russian citizen who had arrived from Moscow to visit her father a day before they were found collapsed on a bench in Salisbury, where he settled following his release from Russian prison in a 2010 spy swap. It has repeatedly sought access to the 33-year-old while darkly suggesting that Britain had some nefarious reason to keep Russian diplomats away from her. The Russian Embassy spoke on April 11 of "suspicions that we are dealing with the forcible isolation of a Russian citizen," and Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said the next day that Britain must prove Sergei and Yulia Skripal were not being held hostage.

But the British police statement painted a different picture. "I have access to friends and family, and I have been made aware of my specific contacts at the Russian Embassy who have kindly offered me their assistance in any way they can," it quoted Yulia Skripal as saying. "At the moment I do not wish to avail myself of their services."

Ukraine also took a new step away from Russia, with President Petro Poroshenko announcing plans to quit the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and terminate parts of a friendship treaty with Russia. In some ways the moves would be largely symbolic -- but the symbolism is powerful given that Putin's goal in pressuring Kyiv to abandon plans for a pact with the European Union in 2013 -- which led to the downfall of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and the war in the Donbas -- was to bring Ukraine closer to Russia, not push it away.

But the biggest blow in the past week came from the new U.S. sanctions, which seem to have hit closer to Putin than any previous round of punishment from the West.

The sanctions prohibit "U.S. persons" from dealing with the listed Russian companies and individuals, who range from Putin's most powerful allies among the "siloviki" -- such as National Guard commander Viktor Zolotov and presidential Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev -- to some of the tycoons he relies on to fund prestige projects and infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and sports stadiums. Those include Oleg Deripaska, Viktor Vekselberg, and Kirill Shamalov -- whose "fortunes drastically improved" following his marriage to Putin's daughter Katerina in 2013, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Unconfirmed reports say the pair has since split.

Those fortunes took a big hit with the sanctions. According to Reuters estimates, Deripaska lost about $4.5 billion and Vekselberg some $1.3 billion in the first few days after the announcement.

"Oleg does not understand what's happening."
"Oleg does not understand what's happening."

Furthermore, non-Americans could be hit with sanctions for "knowingly facilitating significant transactions for or on behalf of the individuals or entities" listed, the Treasury Department said. In a sign of the sanctions' potential reach, The New York Times reported on April 10 that the United States warned London that British banks could face "consequences" if they handle transactions on behalf of the targeted Russians.

The extent of the effects is unclear. But as the ruble slid and sanctions-hit companies sustained substantial damage, Moscow seemed to struggle for an effective way to retaliate without shooting itself in the foot.

On April 13, Russian lawmakers proposed banning a wide range of U.S. goods and services and restricting economic cooperation in response. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin on the legislation, which is to be discussed next week.

'Oleg Doesn't Understand'

On a less formal level, some Russians reacted to the sanctions with comic relief, piling on Deripaska with mocking memes. The metals magnate had already been in the tabloids after opposition leader Aleksei Navalny published a report suggesting he met with a deputy prime minister and former top Putin adviser on a luxury yacht in the presence of an escort -- a Belarusian woman who calls herself Nastya Rybka -- who documented the get-together.

One image shared on social media pictured a confused-looking Deripaska under the caption: "Oleg, 50, doesn't understand what's happening."

Another altered dialogue from a well-known Soviet film to show characters collecting money on behalf of Deripaska and Shamalov.

That was a play on the Kremlin's most specific response to the sanctions, which has been to pledge to help the companies involved. But officials have given few details about how they will do so, and have also seemed eager to avoid the impression that they are coddling tycoons seen by many Russians as craven and corrupt. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov took pains to say publicly on April 11 that Putin had no meeting with sanctions-hit business leaders on his schedule.

At the same time, the government has assiduously portrayed the sanctions as an attack not on Kremlin-connected billionaires but on rank-and-file Russians such as the workers at affected companies.

Putin Ponders

Meanwhile, Putin remained more or less silent.

Seven days after the U.S. sanctions were announced, he had made no public comment on them, leaving that to lawmakers and government officials in what may be an attempt to avoid looking vulnerable in the eyes of Russians.

Putin had also made no direct comment about the U.S. threat to strike Syria in response to the suspected poison-gas attack in Douma, where the World Health Organization said on April 11 that 43 people who died suffered "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not commented on the main stories this week.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not commented on the main stories this week.

Every time Trump calls Assad an "animal" and Russia his enabler, the chances Putin will get want he wants through a relationship with the U.S. president -- bypassing opposition from U.S. allies in Europe and U.S. checks and balances -- seem to decrease.

But despite the sanctions and tough talk from U.S. officials -- Trump now among them at times -- Putin may take heart from a small section of CIA Director Mike Pompeo's prepared remarks for a confirmation hearing on his appointment as secretary of state.

Pompeo told senators on April 12 that years of "soft policy" he said had fueled Russian aggression were "now over," and that Trump's administration will take steps to blunt the "tools that Vladimir Putin is using."

But in prepared remarks, he added, "Our diplomatic efforts with Russia will prove challenging, but as in previous confrontations with Moscow, must continue."

In the ice-cold climate that now prevails, even that may come as music to Putin's ears -- a reassurance that Russia remains at the table despite what Pompeo called its "bad behavior."

Meanwhile, Back Home

As Russia sought to weather the storm abroad, several signs at home this week suggested that some things can't be expected to change much as Putin heads into his new six-year term, which starts on May 7. And that what changes do take place are unlikely to be seen as advancing democracy or civil rights.

-- On April 13, a Moscow court ordered the messaging app Telegram blocked after it refused to give the Federal Security Service (FSB) access to users' messaging data -- a move that will deepen concerns that the Kremlin is seeking to quash dissent by limiting Internet freedom.

-- Longtime Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleyev stepped down on April 1, citing an unbearable moral burden amid recriminations and public pressure following a fire that killed 64 people at a shopping mall in the Siberian region's capital on March 25. But he didn't go far: He was swiftly handed a seat in the regional legislature two days after his resignation -- and was duly voted in by fellow deputies as its speaker on April 10.

-- In another avoidable tragedy -- a kind of Kemerovo writ small, but with excruciating detail, relatives on April 7 buried a 28-year-old woman who died more than two weeks after she was mistakenly injected with formaldehyde, which is used to embalm corpses, after a relatively routine and successful surgery.

-- On April 12, the daily Kommersant quoted unnamed sources in the Kremlin and the cabinet as saying there was a "high probability" that Medvedev will stay on as prime minister after Putin's inauguration. "Given the current foreign-policy agenda, the factor of potential fatigue over the current prime minister...may recede into the background," the paper quoted Russian political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov as saying.

In other words: When there's a storm at sea, don't rock the boat.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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